Making a List, Checking it Twice
March 15, 2011

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Last week, I found myself chatting with a friend who’s trying to incorporate more vegan foods into his life. This friend has been eating what he calls a very “meat and potatoes” diet, and he asked what my most fundamental tips are for someone who’s thinking about making the plant-based transition in any degree of totality. I shared a few of my basic words of wisdom, but of course I started with the advice that I consider the cornerstone of a healthy approach to vegan exploration: add first, subtract later.

More specifically, I wrote:

Add first; subtract later: I have this cheesy motto emblazoned all over the blog, but it’s not without good reason! Instead of focusing immediately on what you have to give up in order to eat more vegan, focus on adding new stuff you haven’t tried yet, but suspect you’ll like. Adding more vegetables and meatless dinners to your overall diet, rather than dwelling on what you can’t have, will make it so much easier to feel motivated and excited–rather than feeling as if you’re stuck on a diet plan.

So, plan 3 or 4 meatless lunches and dinners each week that sound really good: tofu and rice stir fry, pasta with roast vegetables, smoothies, sandwiches with grilled vegetables and hummus–whatever. Buy some veggie burgers and figure out which ones taste good, and keep those around for quick meals. Buy a cookbook (I love THE VEGAN TABLE by Colleen Patrick Goudreau and VEGANOMICON by Isa Chandra Moskowitz) and play around with recipes that sound great. But no matter what, think about new dishes you’re trying, and don’t dwell on old dishes you’re giving up.

This may be simple advice, but I find that it has a huge psychological impact on those who are trying to eat more plant based food: nothing feels worse to us than deprivation, or self-imposed restraint, whereas the notion of exploring something new and exciting is…well, new and exciting!

This advice has been on my mind lately in a different context. Some of my clients who are already vegan—not aspiring, but already there—have confessed to me that they sometimes feel as though they’re constantly saying “no” to themselves: they can’t eat this, they can’t eat that. This is natural, of course: when you make the choice to be vegan, you stop eating a lot of things. But attitude is once again important: focus on what’s been lost, and you’re sure to feel like a schoolchild in detention. Focus on what’s being gained—a wide array of new favorite dishes—and you’ll instantly forget to feel deprived.

It’s interesting to me that so many vegan critics—and some new vegans—worry about the diet being limited. As a counselor, I noticed long ago that most diets–vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore alike—are pretty repetitive. Most of us eat a lot of the same stuff, day in and day out: a PB&J here, a bowl of cereal there, a soup here, a casserole there. Most of us have diets that revolve around a small, consistent group of dishes that we know and love. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as long as those dishes are healthy: there’s nothing wrong with knowing what you like, and sticking to it (I happen to love repeating my favorite dishes). But I do think it’s important for us to remember that vegan diets really aren’t so much more limited than omnivorous ones, at least not in the real world. In theory? Sure, eating as an omnivore may present more options than eating as a vegan will. But in practice, most vegans and omnivores have comparably broad dietary ranges.

In fact—and this is the key point for new and struggling vegans—many vegans find that veganism opens them up to dishes and cuisines and techniques they never knew. This is certainly true for me: as a pescatarian, I ate the same oats or yogurt every morning, the same sandwich for lunch, and the same pasta every night for dinner (when I wasn’t restricting food, that is: when I was, it was a sad little rotation of greek yogurt, rice cakes, cereal, tuna salad, and romaine lettuce with vinegar and no oil). As a vegan, I became a voracious eater, but I also became a foodie, a cook, and a lover of global cuisines and dishes. In the last night, my boyfriend and I have eaten dishes from Egypt, Greece, Israel, and Ireland: what’s limiting about that?

If I’d never found my way to veganism, I might have caught the food lover’s bug anyway, but I doubt it. I suspect that I’d have continued to make conventional and uninspired choices. Veganism is what taught me to appreciate food from around the world. It’s what inspired me to learn how to bake, broil, and sauté; to make homemade pasta, pizza crust, and pastry; to learn how to use a rice cooker, pressure cooker, and dehydrator. All of that range came from veganism. My story may not be typical—most omnivores eat better than I did, and many vegans aren’t as intensely inspired by the shift as I was—but I don’t think it’s totally out of the ordinary, either.

So, new vegans: if you find yourself dwelling on all the things you used to eat, and don’t anymore, try a shift in perspective. Start thinking about all of the dishes that veganism has given you, rather than the dishes it has taken away. If you want, sit down and make a list of your favorite vegan foods. What are they? Burgers, casseroles, bakes? Porridges, pastas, or pies? Stir fries, risottos, or terrines? Sandwiches, soups, or stews? Whatever they are, write them down. Then read them carefully, and take a moment to consider that you might never have found these dishes if you hadn’t stumbled upon the plant-based lifestyle. Isn’t it amazing to think about all of the foods that veganism gives you? And the best part is that your own little list is probably just a small fraction of what’s out there in the world of vegan dining. With any luck, you’ll be instantly galvanized on your vegan path, and eager to get cooking once again.

To end this post, I thought I’d make my own list of dishes I’d never have found without veganism:

And the best part is, this list represents about 1/50th of foods that I eat all the time. Thank you, veganism. Thank you.

Hope this post inspires any new vegan—or even veterans—to take stock of all the incredible food that veganism gives us, and feel inspired. And now, it’s your turn: what’s on your list of foods that veganism led you to?

xo

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    51 Comments
  1. I love your perspective and though I am vegetarian not vegan I empathise. But I think I came at it the opposite way to you. I never liked meat but felt I had to eat it. Once I started cooking for myself and discovering wonderful vegetarian alternatives I didn’t really need meat and I think that helped me become vegetarian.

    Having never liked eggs or milk, I have now found it quite liberating to try vegan recipes where I can have tofu scramble and vegan quiches. Tempeh, tofu, nutritional yeast and smoked paprika are all favourites that I would much prefer to any meat or intense cheesey dish (ok I haven’t given up cheese but am trying to cut back)

    I think my favourite discovery upon becoming vegetarian is nut roast because this made it easy to eat alongside my family’s traditional roast dinner. (I am holding a nut roast blog event at the moment if you are interested in such things – and hope to encourage people to share some great nut roast recipes to add to those I have been posting on my blog since I began it.)

  2. This is SO true! I’ve been trying to share this idea with friends and family members who are a little skeptical of my new-ish food habits. I definitely dislike when people assume I am “restricting myself,” so I’ve been trying to let them know about all the fun new foods that are now staples of my diet. If anything, I eat MORE foods now than I used to! Among the group: pumpkin squash, chia seeds, nooch, coconut ice cream, jicama, kale, smoothies, zucchini pasta, millet, almond milk, etc.

  3. This post couldn’t have come at a better time. Yesterday after I read it, I got a letter in the mail from my doctor: looks like I tested positive for a dairy sensitivity. Instead of bawling over Greek yogurt, cheesy pizza and cheesecake, I thought of this post and all the awesome dairy-free recipes on your blog. I’ll still probably sneak some cheese every once in awhile, but now I feel like I have the tools and the attitude to live mostly dairy-free. Thank you!

  4. i need to give it up to you Gena because being vegan for 3 years and then discovering your website has opened up my palette to plenty of things id never would have discovered otherwise vegan or not. So my hats off to your lovely website.

  5. Such great advice, Gena. I enjoy posts like this for arming myself when I get questions about my diet. For me, I was trying so many new recipes during my transition that I hardly noticed missing the old foods which I usually recommend.

    Veganism led me to many new fruits and veggies, such as kale, jicama, sea vegetables, also many need seeds and nuts – chia seeds, hemp seeds, plant-based protein powders, flax seeds and all the wonderful plant-based sauces I can create in the Vita-Mix.

  6. This is so timely, I had a text from a dear yogi friend that wants to do a vegan diet and asked for my help. I have a grocery store and kitchen date with her this friday. Thanks for the great tips!

  7. I LOVE THIS POST! This is exactly what I tell people who question “what do you eat?”! Except you always say things so much more eloquently! Being vegan has “forced” me in the best way possible to branch out of food ruts and discover really amazing things! Some of my favorite things:

    -Eating avocado everyday!
    -nutritional yeast
    -sunshine burgers
    -almond milk
    -ezikiel breads (especially their tortillas and english muffins!)
    -green smoothies
    -Kale salad and kale chips
    -hemp seeds, chia seeds
    -everything at PEACEFOOD, PF&W, and ONE LUCKY DUCK!! 🙂

    love love love!

  8. I became vegan after a serious illness. I was so restricted from my past diet that I discovered I fit under the category of ‘vegan’ without even being aware of what it entailed! When people asked what I could eat after my illness, I would respond, ‘if it tastes good, I can’t eat it.’ Fast forward to 3 years later, my tastebuds have undergone a serious adjustment and I now believe that what I eat tastes 100 times better than what I would have consumed previously. I used to cry when we would go to a restaurant and I would have to say no to so many things I love, now I am happy to go out and explore the options available, and better yet, cook more at home! I definitely agree that vegan food options are endless, so many of you bloggers have proven that already!
    I believe my health crisis has turned out to have a positive effect on my life. Extremely difficult in the beginning, but now I enjoy a much healthier lifestyle, my family (although not yet vegan) is enjoying healthier options and I have so much more empathy for people and animals.
    I wouldn’t have made it this far without blogs like yours for inspiration, so keep up the great work and food ideas–my tummy’s depending on you!

  9. When I read the title of your post, I really didn’t think it would be about this, but I am so glad I read it. Your “add first subtract later” policy, in my view, applies to anyone looking to make healthy food choices. Vegan or not, everyone can benefit from adding veggies (and other healthy foods) to their diet.

    Since transforming my diet to ‘clean’ whole foods some of my favorite foods are: kale, sweet potatoes, amaranth, quinoa, various chilis including Indian, Mexican and Middle-Eastern versions.

    Thanks for this post, I am going to forward it to a vegetarian friend who has begun her own healthy eating journey.

  10. great post gena- i always love your enthusiasm (i am a regular reader but not a regular commenter!) i am always boggled by your dedication to smart and engaging blog posts in the midst of such a busy schedule. you are rockin!
    regarding the add, then subtract approach: i realize this is the idea i try to work towards in my cooking classes. most of my students are ‘transitional’ eaters- and what i hope to inspire in them is a greater interest in veggies and vegan foods, rather than taking a negative stance on meat (even at our all-vegetarian store). i think that by focusing on the great things we can eat does work to make us happier about our choices. i would much rather have someone eat kale with their existing meat-based meals than not eat kale at all!

    also, i noticed that LOTS of folks expressed their love of nooch in their comments. i’ve always had it (and used in homemade seitan) but recently i’ve been eating a lot more, and i was curious what you think about this food item. for me it falls under the ‘it’s too damn good, i am not sure if i should be eating it’ category! i’ve done some brief research but i am sure you have lots of info… just curious… aloha from maui, andrea

  11. I just love your approach.

    I think for me, veganism has led me to expand my creativity and ideas about food.. in fact, what whet my vegan appetite was learning you could make cheese with nuts… I was so intrigued that I ordered some books and then I learned more about factory farming..

  12. Hi Gena,
    A quick, unrelated question from a non-vegan (I still enjoy your site muchly). What are your thoughts on metamucil? As someone like me, who is battling IBS-like symptoms of fluctuating constipation, incomplete diarrhea, and a lot of pain in the lower back that may be related to intense gas build up (among other things). SOrry to hijack your thread! I just am curious about metamucil , ha 🙂

  13. This is a great post! I love your motto, add first; subtract later. I just made myself a little list of 4 things I want to do. Thanks for the inspiration.

  14. Im not vegan but I found my way to whole food and raw food while researching pregnancy nutrition three years ago. I have learned so much and it is blogs like yours that keep me going! Im currently 15 weeks pregnant with baby #2 and love that good food can literally wash away a lot of common pregnancy complaints. If it werent for vegans, whole food recipes or raw foodists I wouldnt know about kale chips, all the great things you can do with hemp, all the amazingness you can create with a dehydrator, nut cheeses and nut milk! I cant tolerate milk so well and raw organic homemade almond milk totally saves my life! I also doubt I would have tried raw veggies as much as I have! Collards and chard for wraps?!?! That was once a bizarro concept to me. Oh and I never would have realised how kombucha can totally take away the early pregnancy symptoms I refer to as gut rot!

    What else can I say but life is good with good food! Keep these lovely blogs coming Gena!

  15. This is a great perspective, thanks! The first question people ask is, “So, you don’t eat meat? And no fish? No eggs either?” And with the raw food, “And you don’t eat pasta? Bread?” ect. ect. I have to agree that my raw vegan diet is so much richer and varied than my previous pescatarian diet. I got lulled into this boring salad / plain fish cycle, and depended on easy processed foods such as cereal and crackers. I made many meals out of cereal and crackers…

    Raw vegan has led to a wonderful exploration in the kitchen, and a new appreciation, love and excitement for food. Kale! Not bitter and nasty as I assumed. Zucchini! I’m eating more of this than I ever imagined possible (hummus, pasta). Making my own juice pulp crackers and bread is just plain fun. And need I say more about chia pudding.

    Raw vegan truly has been a case of “less is more”.

  16. This is SUCH a great way to introduce people to veganism. I love it! You write about veganism in a way that makes it seem so practical and doable. I’ve been a lifelong vegetarian and a vegan for a little over 2 yrs. It’s extremely important to me and something I wish I was better at advocating, but unfortunately, I tend to take conversations on the topic a little too personally and I end up getting flustered! This obviously doesn’t do anyone any good. I love veganism and want to improve the way I communicate it. I’m definitely taking some tips from you … thanks Gena!

  17. Love this post! This is a great mantra for people considering veganism. I always tell people it doesn’t have to be all or nothing; more plant-based foods is a step in the right direction. And someone who recently transitioned from vegetarianism to veganism, I love the idea of focusing on all the amazing new foods I’ve been eating. It totally has expanded my horizons.

    It’s strange, too, but I am missing eggs/cheese a whole lot less than I thought I would!! That stuff is becoming less and less appealing to me.

  18. Growing up, tofu was a joke in my house – it was something that 80s yuppies would eat, not “real” people. Then, in college, one of my best friends was Thai and she loved tofu on her salads – but it was just straight-up plain tofu – yuck! Now, tofu is one of my favorite ingredients! Just marinate slices in some olive oil and balsamic, bake in the oven, and you have deliciou tofu “steaks.”

    I also would never have tried kale before becoming vegan. Just iceberg lettuce for me, thanks. I’m still picky about how I prepare my kale (it took me a long time before I found a handful of recipes where I like how it tastes). Now, even my 7 year old omnivore son will pick a handful of kale chips off my plate when I make them. This from the kid who will only eat corn.

    • I forgot to mention my homemade bean burgers! I’ve created some fabulously delicious (and some not so tasty) bean burgers with just a drained can of whatever beans I have on hand, some oatmeal, and whatever other ingredients strike my fancy. I never would’ve even thought to attempt such a thing (especially without an egg as a binder) when I ate meat.

  19. I could not agree more about your advice. I would call myself “mostly vegan” and this month for lent I’ve decided to go all the way and be a vegan. Who knows if it will stick or not? But I never could have had the courage to try this out if I wasn’t already so familiar with eating meatless/dairyless meals.

  20. Great post!!! As a health coach I love the adding in idea and you are so right, my diet was incredibly uninspired pre vegetarian. I didn’t even know how to cook. Now I’m a cooking machine.

  21. Switching to veganism really didn’t make me miss dishes; at first I just had a tough time coping with omnis not really sure “what I could actually eat.” But over the past year and a half, I have realized that I eat a much more varied and interesting set of meals than many of my friends (at least it seems that way), and I am very adventurous when it comes to trying new vegan things. Prime example is this: people ask me what I eat and I spend about two minutes just naming my favorite greens and why I like each one and what it goes well with to me. They always respond they didn’t know most of those existed…and similar responses for my list of grains that I like!

  22. Great point! Focus on the positive! When I come across a food that I don’t eat, my mind doesn’t usually go to a place of negativity. I feel proud that I am able to eat the way I do.

  23. Long story short: I was browsing the runner’s world forums, clicked on the user profile of a girl who had posted a food-related comment I liked, via her blogroll found another foodie blog on which you wrote a guest post, found your site, got inspired, read The China Study and became 100% vegan after a two-day transition phase (I had been a vegetarian since age 13, so it really wasn’t too hard).

    That was nearly a year ago and at least culinarily speaking it has been the most enriching and rewarding of my life! THANK YOU!!

    The things I have discovered and now wouldn’t want to do without:

    – Nut butters!!!!!!!
    – Alternative milks (Almond! Oat! Rice! Oh. The. JOY!)
    – Avocado’s versatility
    – Coconut oil and cream
    – Green smoothies
    – Seaweed
    – Raw anythings

    P.S. By the way, I love that you’ve decided to enter the world of medicine. I’m a vet med student myself and I believe the medical world could do with a few hundred thousands of people like you! You wouldn’t believe the looks (actually, I think you would) some people gave me when I started my dog on homemade vegan wheatgrass and spirulina oats for breakfast … (He loved it!)

    Thanks again for the inspiration! 🙂

  24. I had a lot of food discoveries when veganism pushed me to look beyond chain restaurants. In more exotic establishments I discovered chana masala, falafel, dahl, Ethiopian wat, coconut milk ice cream, seaweed salads and dosas. All delicious and all vegan!

  25. I am an unsolicited editor, feel free to delete this comment for it is nit-picky. But you say, “this list represents about 1/50th of foods that I eat all the time. ”

    Only 2%? I bet Kale alone is 50% of your diet!!

  26. Most of my first are listed above so I’ll just add the “how.” After going vegan I used a rice cooker, pressure cooker (thanks to you, Gena!) and a dehydrator for the first time. I had never cooked with dry beans (or millet, or farro, or…) I eat a far wider variety of foods now that I’m vegan.

  27. Well, I’m not officially vegan, but can I play anyway? Nutritional yeast, an obsession with nut butters, and green smoothies 🙂

  28. This is a hard question for me since I haven’t eaten meat since I was a child so my exploration of new foods started very young, but it’s a fun question so I shall try:

    – Nut pates
    – Homemade nut milks
    – Seaweed (in dishes other than sushi)
    – Coconut oil and butter
    – Chia seeds and the many dishes that can be made with them
    – Carob (Used to hate it, but in an interview with Isa on Vegan Freaks I heard, she said “I love carob…but I hate it when people say it’s a replacement for chocolate. It’s not, it’s its own thing.” Once I tried it again with that in mind, I was hooked!)
    – Tahini (in things other than hummus)
    – Dishes like vegan pesto and vegan mac and cheese, which I think far surpass the originals.
    – Nutritional yeast
    – Green smoothies

    I’ll stop now. And by the way, I love this approach. One of my favourite things about becoming vegan was seeing how an increase in vegetable consumption just naturally replaced other things I was eating!

  29. I think the same thing could be said of eating more raw too, add more and crowd out the other things. I think the healthier things one eats the less you crave the junky or animal product-addictive stuff. Speaking of addictive, a few vegan doctors assert that animal products are addictive. Do you agree with that premise? I realize it’s risky to put that out there as it could be offensive to omnivores.

  30. I’ve gotten so many of my favorite foods from the vegan lifestyle: nutritional yeast, kale chips, green smoothies, a million permutations of fruit and nut and chocolate smoothies, chocolate soymilk, chia seed puddings, raw flaxseed maple syrup cookies, blended veggie/nut soups, bacon tempeh (which I am eating for the first time as I type), raw pad thai, coconut water, kefer, and ice cream, quinoa and barley, sweet potato fries, seaweed, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed-fried-zucchini, homemade veggie burgers, banana soft-serve, Trader Joes pumpkin bread made with canned pumpkin instead of egg (SO much better!), kale-bean stews, …

  31. As a long time vegetarian and new vegan, I’ve discovered nutritional yeast and cashew based sauces for pasta etc. I agree than veganism opens you up to a whole new culinary world!

  32. This is a great post! Without eating a mostly vegan diet, I never would have discovered nutritional yeast, which I now love and put into as many recipes as possible. Mmm I also love vegan desserts.

  33. Since having to give up gluten, which I thought was going to be the end of the world, I’ve tried SO MANY new things – mostly fresh and healthy whole foods that I would have just glanced over in the prodcue section. Now, I see something that looks unfamiliar and I have to buy it! Before, I was apples, bananas, romaine and tomatoes. Healthy, yes, but not varied.

  34. I too have found that veganism and raw foods have broadened my palette, increased my kitchen creativity and of course my health! I love how many choices I have and I feel excited for every meal as a result. When I find a new vegetable I am bursting at the seams with excitement for how I can bring it into a delicious meal.
    Of course it wasn’t always like this. It took me some months to see the options available to me and realize that I have an abundance in my diet now that I didn’t have before. This is not just in terms of the food options available but my mental and emotional state. By choosing to eat a diet of healthy plant foods, I was choosing an abundant mindset, meaning I felt I had hundreds of options for what to feed myself with and all of them would be nourishing. This is a far cry from my previous restriction mindset where I felt caged by the food options available as I pondered which would make me look fatter, uglier, unhealthier etc.
    I also feel a plant based diet (of healthy, non GMO foods) is abundant in the sense that emotionally and ethically it makes my heart full full of love, care and purpose, in that I am doing my best to not support practices I don’t believe in. This is another way I feel abundant and like my life has expanded.
    Great post Gena. Yes it is a simple message but I agree with you a very important one that often makes all the difference with my clients also.

  35. I love this! Today after someone expressed sadness and sympathy that I couldn’t eat certain foods, I was puzzled for a moment. I no longer look at the way I eat as “restricted,” but as unique, creative, and deeply satisfying. Not being able to eat gluten, corn, or soy (amongst other things) has opened up a whole new world of challenges, victories, and delicious surprises. I am happier with my diet than I have ever been before, all thanks to a body that rejects certain foods that others see as staples. I think this relates to veganism in a similar way, of course. While veganism is different in that it is a choice, I think regardless one will nearly always be amazed not only at their undiscovered options, but also the unforeseen benefits of eating new foods (e.g., kale, socca, millet). 🙂 I always appreciate your thoughtful posts, Gena.

  36. I love this post! Some of my favorite things that veganism led me to:
    -cooking my own beans instead of using canned
    -kale in many forms!
    -expanding my grains repetoire
    -popcorn with sea salt and nutritional yeast (this combo, but I always loved popcorn)
    -vegan baking
    -raw treats

    Oh so many more…I can’t even do this list justice

  37. What a great reminder, Gena! I definitely fall prey to that rut of same foods day in and day out. It’s always great to mix things up, and we end up appreciating a lot more foods than before.

  38. I’m a former vegan, but I still enjoy SO many of the things I ate while I was vegan. Aside from the many restaurants veganism introduced me to, my list of foods includes…but is certainly not limited to…nutritional yeast, arame, tempeh, nuts and nut butters, homemade hummus and other dips, soba noodles, grains like quinoa and millet, coconut milk and coconut ice cream, kombucha, veggie burgers…the list could go on forever.

  39. I really love this post! These are great ideas I will be thinking about, so simple but effective. I’m not 100% vegan but I love vegan baking with banana and flax eggs!

  40. Great article! I could have replaced “vegan” with “relationship” (and many other things) in most of the article- its so true that our perspective of deprivation versus exploration changes everything! I love being vegan, partly because of how many wonderful foods I’ve tried that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Some of my favorite things that being vegan has led me to are green smoothies, green juice, buying my produce at the farmers market, no/less waste food purchases, raw granola, seeds of all kinds, sweet potatoes, coconut, mango, peaches, hummus, pumpkin and the most fabulous- healing from lifelong chronic illnesses! Being vegan is truly so much fun and has brought me so much joy! Thanks for the reminder and inspiration.

  41. With so many things in life, adding is easier than subtracting. Psychologically it just feels easier to have/add than to reduce/remove/lose/subtract. So that is a good mantra, Gena!

    Things that I have found not just b/c of veganism per se but also b/c of the blog world: nooch!!, chia seeds, sun warrior protein powder (not that i eat it often but i would have probably never found it a few yrs back) and sooo many other things.

    I believe that my gluten intolerance and food allergies were a gift in many ways…they forced me to obvi heal my gut and get in touch with my physical issues but they made me become a much better and more creative chef and cook. B/c trust me, when i heard no more gluten, i heard: subtract. And that…sucked! But I figured things out, but it was hard….at first! 🙂

  42. “Add first; subtract later.” Love it. Great way to look at it. I also like your list and will have to try some of the things you love that I haven’t really even heard of.
    Thanks!